Mike Neal's brief appearance at outside linebacker during Tuesday's organized team activities may be nothing more than a mid-May experiment, but the opportunity likely proves that the Green Bay Packers have committed to giving the former second-round pick an expanded role in the defense for 2013.
Head coach Mike McCarthy confirmed after the practice that the Packers are looking at new ways to get Neal involved.
"Depends on how you use big guys in space," McCarthy said. "We're going to expand Mike Neal's role. Going to wait on specifics until Week 1 of the season."
Despite playing his entire NFL career as a 290-pound or heavier defensive lineman, Neal spent unexpected time at outside linebacker in the base defense Tuesday. He was asked to both rush the passer from a two-point stance and drop into coverage—two mostly foreign tasks to the Packers' second rounder in 2010—during 7-on-7 drills.
According to Neal, the Packers told him—in no specific terms—that his role would be expanding.
"When I got here, it was, ‘Hey, go upstairs. We’ve got to talk to you about something," Neal said, per Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "We’re going to try and move you around a little bit. We’re going to try and expand your role. We want to get familiar with all facets of the game and we’ll take it from there."
Whether or not Neal continues to see time at outside linebacker—a position the Packers remain obviously thin—is yet to be seen.
But considering how effective Neal was a pass rusher last season, it's no wonder why McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers are attempting to devise new ways to get Neal after quarterbacks.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Neal finished the 2013 season as the third best 3-4 defensive end in pass rushing productivity. Only J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans and Arthur Jones of the Baltimore Ravens were more productive on a per snap basis than Neal, who tallied 20 total quarterback pressures (sacks, hits and hurries) over just 191 pass-rushing snaps.
After serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, and then dealing with a number of nagging injuries (knee, ankle, shoulder), Neal went on an impressive five-game stretch from Week 13 (Minnesota) to the NFC Wild Card (also Minnesota) that included 16 total pressures. His pass-rushing grade at PFF during the span was +7.6, the best on the team from Week 13 on.
Neal would eventually struggle holding the edge in the base defense against the San Francisco 49ers in the Divisional Round, but there were very few bright spots that Saturday night in terms of stopping the run. Neal was no exception during his 28 snaps, 17 of which came in pass-rushing situations (he recorded just a single hurry).
Overall, Neal finished 2012 as Green Bay's highest graded pass-rusher along the defensive line, and second on the team to only Clay Matthews.
Neal admitted following Tuesday's practice that he has very little idea what the staff plans to do with him, especially as an outside linebacker. Officially listed at 294 pounds, Neal is an unlikely candidate to remain as a standup passer rusher off the edge.
And considering the Packers were without backup Dezman Moses Tuesday, it's entirely possible that Neal's try out at outside linebacker was nothing more than a placement made possible out of necessity.
However, the Packers drafting of Datone Jones in the first round could rob a player like Neal of precious snaps along the defensive line. Jones, who has vast experience in the 3-4 defense, is likely capable of playing all three downs early in his NFL career.
But considering how effective Neal was as a pass-rusher in obvious passing situations last season, the Packers will now want to create new ways of getting Neal in situations were he can disrupt the quarterback.
Neal had little idea of whether or not the defense's effort to do so would include long-term snaps at outside linebacker.
"This is OTA's and it’s just them getting a feel for something," Neal said. "If I knew I would tell you. I have no clue."
Neal may not be in the loop on his role for 2013, but the Packers are making no secret about their desire to create more opportunities for Neal next season. An unrestricted free agent after 2013, Neal should have every chance to prove he belongs in Green Bay's plans long-term.
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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